Saturday, February 7, 2015

What "Socially Liberal But Fiscally Conservative" Really Means

Since my teen years I've noticed that behind all of the partisan warfare at the top of the political spectrum, there is a certain kind of untapped consensus.  I don't know how many people I've met who describe themselves as "socially liberal but fiscally conservative."  I usually hear this from people who are rather disengaged from politics, mostly because their opinion is so embedded in the way things are done that there's no reason for them to get involved.  On the one hand, gay marriage is becoming the law of the land, on the other, state governments have been slashing social spending, with Wisconsin, Louisiana, and Kansas being recent notable examples.  Sure there are anti-abortion fanatics and social democrats still out there, but both groups are highly marginal these days.

I am currently reading Matthew Lassiter's The Silent Majority, a history of suburban politics in the postwar South, and I am beginning to see the historical antecedents of the modern day "socially liberal but politically conservative" cliche.  He focuses in on affluent white suburbanites in cities like Atlanta and Charlotte who opposed the white supremacist "massive resistance" policy intending to halt school desegregation by closing down all of the public schools.  These suburbanites instead proposed to save the public schools by allowing for only token integration while maintaining residential segregation.  They found the out and out bigoted racism of Lester Maddox and his ilk to be distasteful, but were themselves not inclined to challenge the structures of institutional racism.  In fact, by maintaining local school districts in highly segregated living areas, they were actively maintaining institutional racism, all while proclaiming its "colorblind" nature.

When I hear the socially liberal/fiscally conservative crowd today, I can't help but to see the similarities.  They are okay with legalized marijuana, abortion rights, and gay rights, mostly because that does not cost them a thing.  At the same time, they are not at all interested in income inequality, institutional racism, lack of health care access, and any other social injustice that would require wealth redistribution to rectify.  The ghettoes do not concern them, nor does the fact that students who live in poorer areas have a much lower quality of education than their own children bother them.  In fact, they secretly like it that way.  Deep down they just want to maintain their middle class existence with as little bother and as low of taxes as possible, all while keeping others below them at bay.  (I've never heard anyone who is socially liberal/politically conservative ever complain about the costs of policing or imprisonment.)  They can then turn around and pat themselves on the back for not hating gays and being cool with weed.

This new silent consensus is of monumental importance, and people have been getting away with this purposefully obfuscating belief for quite some time.  They need to be called on it.  When someone tells you, with the usual glint of pride "I'm socially liberal but fiscally conservative," ask them what they really mean by that.


Justin M. White said...

Excellent stuff. I've had a hard time articulating this attitude, and you've given me a great framework to start from.

Steve said...

Yes. There are also far too many people who wouldn't even add the "fiscally conservative" part, but identify themselves simply as "liberal," which to them basically comes down to just being "socially liberal." They'd also probably be horrified that anybody would suggest that in many ways they indeed held any kind of "conservative" views.